Mildly spoilery in the service of outrage.
It’s often been noted that while Warhammer 40,000’s Imperial Space Marines are fun as plastic army men who beat up orks with their chainsaw swords, they make for terribly dull long-form fiction characters. There are only so many cries of “For the Emperor!” and “Xenos filth!” that a reader can take before boredom sets in, and a marine-centric novel runs the risk of becoming a string of heroic deaths and gruesome slaughters.
It’s very obvious that Ben Counter doesn’t really like Space Marines much, or at least understands the arguments of those who don’t. The Soul Drinkers in his novels have all of the usual Space Marine “virtues” – pride, wrath, pitilessness, overweening piety toward the Emperor – but Counter makes a point of giving the perspective of both the enemies and allies of the Marines, and none of them fail to see these flaws for what they are. Nobody in the Imperium of Man really trusts or respects the Soul Drinkers outside of their use as a tool to smash enemies, and in the omnibus’ third book we find that the Crimson Fists marines are held in similar poor regard by the Imperial Guard generals they are assisting.
The first novel is set up as a Greek tragedy; the names of Soul Drinkers like Sarpedon, Iktinos, and Tellos are no accident. Small mistake by small mistake, prodded by hubris, they slowly make their way down the path of damnation. The other two books are more like action mystery novels, with the reader shut out of the Soul Drinkers’ motivations and getting more from the side of those who oppose them. All of the books have an ongoing sense of doom and decay, as the fugitive marines are steadily whittled down with little hope of… well, anything, really.
The most prominent and ongoing problem with this omnibus is that the copy editing is atrocious. Typos, missing or redundant words, and other simple errors abound. In literally the first paragraph of The Bleeding Chalice the word “som” appears in place of “so,”. It’s distracting and detracts from the experience of reading the novels, to the point where I spend some passages wondering when the typo will appear rather than paying attention to the action.
Counter also made a bad call when he took that correspondence course from the Lucas School of Bad Guy Character Arcs. Sure, he writes awesome villains, and you enjoy the parts of the story that follow them around as they go about their bad-ass villainy, but once it comes time for the good guys to win Counter flounders badly. Some of the bad guys make inexplicable poor decisions that reveal their sole and heretofore unknown weakness. Some just turn out to be pussies with cool outfits on. Seriously, if a dude can conquer entire civilizations am I really supposed to believe he’ll be taken out with a few bullets and a good curb-stomping? Did nobody honestly try this before our heroes?
A more modest quibble is that 40K fluff-hounds will find some inconsistencies with the established 40K universe in the Soul Drinkers books. Plasma weapons apparently shoot a liquid version of plasma rather than the expected super-heated energy version – hot blood serum? – and genestealers in Counter’s world are a much more direct ripoff of the critters from Aliens than Games Workshop’s traditional “we changed a few things please don’t sue” version.
On the plus side, and it can’t be understated, Counter writes good action. It’s easy to follow who is where and what they’re up to, and the language he uses has plenty of impact. Additionally he’s got a real knack for the brand of slobbery heavy metal album cover horror writing that 40K is born to support, and some of his Chaos world settings and story points are literally stomach-turning. There’s nothing like settling down for a few chapters of nice plastic-wrapped sanitary gunplay and instead meeting a walking vagina dentata full of sentient eyeballs to put the reader in a pleasingly back-footed frame of mind.
All in all, a yes for fans of sci-fi horror action, a definite maybe for 40K nerds, and a certainly not for fans of spelling, grammar, and punctutation.